Excellent pacing is the key to unlock your personal best on Alpe d'Huez and mountainous events.
"The correct pacing strategy is a massively important aspect of cycling. Regardless of this it is an often overlooked factor even though the performance gains that can be achieved are huge". Quote and article by Mike Gaddas.
During this short blog post I am going to split my article into two parts. The first part will discuss how to pace for a max effort time trial style hill climb. The second part will discuss the importance of pacing for an all day sportive style event. This post will be written with an Alpine theme but they key points are relevant across all areas and disciplines of cycling.
Pacing for a personal best on Alpe d’Huez
Pacing for fast time up a climb like Alpe d'Huez is a daunting task. Most decent amateur cyclists aim to climb this mythical beast in under 60 mins. In order to achieve this, you need a high level of aerobic fitness and a solid pacing strategy. Research suggests the quickest way to the top is often an evenly paced effort or even a negative split. For this post I am assuming the reader does not have a power meter.
The first 15 mins. The start of a climb is often the most important. The adrenaline is flowing and the temptation to stamp on the pedals is strong. The key to nailing the start is to throttle back and find a sustainable rhythm almost immediately. If you go over your threshold at this early stage your body will start to produce more lactate and you can end up in oxygen debt. This will eventually lead to a slower overall time. Your effort level or perceived exertion (RPE) should feel like a 7/10 at this stage.
The middle 30 mins. This is the main chunk of the climb. Hopefully you have a nice rhythm established and you can build on that during this period. Try to stay seated and spin an easy gear of around 80-100rpm. Feel free to get out of the saddle for brief periods every couple of minutes to spread the workload around different muscle groups. But ensure that the vast majority of the climb is undertaken in the saddle as this is the most efficient way to the top. By now the climb is starting to feel very challenging., The perceived effort level (RPE) should feel like an 8 or 9/10.
The last 15 mins. Finish strong. This is where mental toughness starts to become very important. The last section of a climb is going to hurt, a lot. You need to hold your form, stay relaxed and focus on breathing. Try breathing from your belly, this allows your lungs to expand fully which results in more oxygen being available for working muscles. The finish line is almost in sight but the amount of time that can be lost or gained in this period is significant. You must be willing to give everything in order to achieve your fastest time. Keep the pressure on the pedals and try to up your power for the last few minutes. Perceived effort should be a solid 10/10 for this. Sprint for the line and then you can hopefully bask in the glory of tackling Alpe d'huez in under 1 hour.
Pacing for a multiple mountain day / Marmotte sportive
A full day cycling in the mountains can be a joyous or torturous experience. The correct pacing will go a long way to ensuring the latter. With an event such as La Marmotte, the correct pacing is the difference between finishing the event and not making it past halfway.
The ‘start easy finish strong’ ethos has never been more true than in La Marmotte. Go to hard on the first climb and a miserable day lies ahead of you. Ensure you know the climbs very well and always pace for what is to come not just what is in front of you. When you are on climb number 1, the Glandon, always have in the back of your mind that you still have the Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez to come.
There are many benefits of riding at lower intensities. It spares muscle glycogen, because your body by burns a greater proportion of fat as fuel. You will also produce less heat, meaning you sweat less. Eating and drinking on the bike is also easier because your breathing is under control and you aren't gasping for breath. The importance of these factors are huge over an event as long as the Marmotte. If you can finish the Glandon properly hydrated and with glycogen levels topped up you are in a strong position to press on with your day.
Muscular fatigue is almost inevitable on an event as big as a Marmotte. However, there are some measures you can take to ensure you avoid excessive fatigue earlier than necessary. Pushing out less power on the first few climbs of the day is going to pay dividends later on. But don't underestimate the run in to the climb on the flat valley road. The starter sounds and people tend to sprint out at a pace that is not sustainable. Try to relax and ignore the people overtaking you. There is a high possibility you will be seeing them later. The first few hours should be taken at a ‘conversational pace’, meaning you should be able to chat without gasping for oxygen. This means precious glycogen reserves will be saved for when you need them most. Ensure to eat and drink plenty in these early stages.
Having a high cadence of between 80-100rpm is very important. Studies have shown that lower cadences cause muscle fibers to fatigue more because there is more muscular force required per pedal stroke when compared to high cadences. Sometimes riding at low cadences is inevitable on particularly steep sections of climbs. But the correct gearing will go a long way to helping avoid this. Riding with a compact chainset with a 32 tooth rear cassette is recommended. However, there are some issues with using such easy gears. If you stay in the 34x32 when the climb starts to flatten out, you can often find yourself going much slower than necessary. A climb that would originally take an hour can easily take 1hour 15 mins. Over an event like the Marmotte an extra 15 mins per climb is an extra hour or more on the bike. When the climb dips below 10%, don't be afraid to click down a gear a two and keep the same intensity as the steep parts.
Pacing tools are a great addition to help with pacing. By far the most common pacing tool is the heart rate monitor. These can be useful in an event like the Marmotte but there are also major issues with pacing off heart rate. Dehydration, altitude, adrenaline, caffeine, core body temperature, ambient temperature, eating and cardiac drift all have significant effect on heart rate values. If you have planned to climb the Telegraphe and Galibier in ‘zone 3’, you may start off cycling at 144 bpm but you could be up near 163 bpm by the time you are near the top even though you are cycling at the same intensity. This could be due to the fact you are slightly dehydrated or the fact there is 25% less oxygen available towards the top of the Galibier. I personally like using heart rate but understanding how external factors affect it is crucial.
The gold standard in pacing tool is a correctly calibrated power meter. This shows you the force you are actually putting through the pedals. The benefit of power is it isn't affect by external factors. If you know and understand your numbers it can make pacing the climbs on an event like the Marmotte slightly more straightforward. There will be more blog posts up in the coming weeks going into more details on pacing tools, nutrition and hydration so I am going to leave it there for now.
The key takeaway message is START SLOW! An all day event like the Marmotte or Etape is hard enough on its own. There is no need for you to make it any harder for yourself by going out hard. I wish you the best of luck, whether you are trying to sub 60 minutes up Alpe d’Huez, an event like the Marmotte or trying to finish a challenging multi day trip. All are massive achievements but certainly achievable with the correct preparation, nutrition and pacing.
09 Jan 2020 07:38:00
If you have a power meter how would you translate your approach to the start , middle and finish sections to your power output ? Is it as simple as keeping your effort at or around FTP given most rides will last an hour or so or would you vary it as you have indicated for riders without a meter ?
09 Jan 2020 17:39:04
Great question Gordon. I think I can safely say that it really depends upon your goal for the ride or event, and the type of terrain expect throughout. Pre ride/event it’s great to have an understanding of the course so you can plan to ride and fuel accordingly.
For rides that are longer than a couple of hours, it’s important to think about starting out at a pace that’s sustainable and can be built upon as the ride progresses. Food intake and hydration play a big role in the level of intensity that you choose or are forced to ride at later in the day. If you’re sensible with pacing early in a ride/event and fuel correctly, then there’s no reason at all why you can’t ride longer climbs at or around threshold and shorter ones at an even higher intensity level, even if they come towards the back end of the ride.
The essential thing here is to understand the cost of your efforts. The higher the intensity level the more energy you will expend. This is one of many great reasons to train and ride with a power meter because there’s a direction correlation of your efforts to the fuel that’s required. If you have a specific event in mind like your Ride Across America next year, the way you train over the coming 12 months, will have a significant impact on how you pace yourself next year. If it’s a multi day event having a solid understanding of how your body recovers days after day will also play a role. Using power, Heart Rate + Perceived exertion levels are the key.
I’ve dropped you an email and if you’d like to know more please just let me know.